John Meyer is Kicker’s technical representative and, when it comes to car audio, there isn’t much he doesn’t know.
Custom car audio systems are just starting to take off in the New Zealand V8 scene, so while legendary car audio guru John Myer was in town, we thought we would find out what he has to say about the American scene, being on TV’s Overhaulin’ and his thoughts on New Zealand.
NZV8: John, you’re well known in the US car audio industry ” tell us how it all started for you.
JM: When I was at elementary school age I loved to play with speakers. I would take the woofers out and put the boxes in different places around the room to see how it changed the sound. I found out that if I just had a speaker attached to a bit of board it sounded terrible, but if I slid it underneath my bed where it formed a box of sorts it sounded a lot better.
In junior high I started building my own speakers in woodwork and also playing with electronics. When I was 13 my neighbour was having problems with his radio and he couldn’t make it work. I had a play, got it going, and he paid me $20. You know, $20 when you’re 13 ” and remember this was 27 years ago ” wasn’t a bad deal. So I took all the woodwork and automotive classes I could, and in college I took electronics. I kind of put it all together and started running my own car audio shop in 1988. I was working at Kenwood before I moved to Stillwater Designs [Kicker] 10 years ago.
NZV8: These days, what’s your daily grind?
JM: My main role with Kicker is as a trainer. I train our dealers all over the US ” and in other parts of the world like Europe and here in New Zealand ” about the Kicker product and how it works. I try to educate the guys on audio as well, because the more you know about audio, the better you’re going to deal with everything in this industry.
NZV8: We have also heard that you’ve had a hand in building some wild car audio systems for TV.
JM: Yeah, well the second part of my job has been to design and build Kicker-based audio systems for cars on a few of the popular TV shows in the US. I’ve worked on Overhaulin’, Rides, Dream Car Garage and Speed Vision. I was also on a project for Ripley’s Believe it Or Not in which I had a hand building one of the loudest vehicles in the world. That car was an ’84 Ford Bronco that made 173dB with 48 Kicker woofers, back in 2001.
NZV8: Wow, that’s loud! So installing is something you’ve really been into?
JM: Oh yeah. When I first started at Kicker I would help build the show/demo vehicles for the company, along with handling all the tech support and doing dealer training. After about seven years they took me out of the install side of things, but I really missed it. That’s when I got involved with our OEM [original equipment manufacturer] department, where I helped design the factory Kicker-based audio systems that are in the new turbocharged Dodge Neon SRT-4s.
NZV8: How was that?
JM: The problem I had with doing OEM is the fact that you can’t be as creative. You have lots of rules like not being able to put extra holes in the vehicle, not taking any extra power current away, and everything has to be done a set way. It wasn’t as much fun for me as I thought it would be, because I like to play and really build systems that knock your socks off. So I actually ended up back in the show vehicle department as the head installer. But now, after 27 years of installing, I’m putting all my focus back into training others.
NZV8: We’ve heard the Kicker name is one that really pioneered the whole modern car audio scene.
JM: Yes, it is. The owner of Kicker, Steve Irby, has been credited with starting the whole car audio craze, and there’s a good story behind how it all began for him, too. One of his music buddies wanted to listen to practice tapes in his car, and knowing Steve had an interest in speakers and was good with his hands, he asked him to build him something. So Steve took a Pevey stage monitor, pulled the speakers out of it, put them into a new box, and fitted it behind the front seats in his friend’s truck. When he was done Steve took it around to his buddy’s house and asked him, “What do you think?” His friend said, “It feels like someone is kicking me in the back” ” and that’s where the Kicker name came from. That was in 1973, when the brand was born. By 1980 Kicker was developing its own speaker, and Steve had designed and built the world’s very first full-range speaker enclosure, the original Kicker, especially for a car.
NZV8: Kicker is cementing itself well in the New Zealand car audio world, but as far the US market goes, how well established is the brand there?
JM: It’s really interesting. I think we’re the biggest single brand in the US right now. Obviously guys like Sony and Kenwood are doing more volumes, but they also do head units and Kicker doesn’t. We basically do everything else but head units, so there are speakers, processors, amplifiers, and we also have a marine/all-weather line in the range.
NZV8: Is there any reason why Kicker steers away from head units?
JM: One of the reasons why is that in most modern cars the head unit is a big, integrated part of the dashboard that is tied into many other onboard electronic devices. As an example, Kicker just did a car for the heavy metal band Korn, a 2007 Cadillac CTS. The OEM head unit in that car featured touch-screen GPS navigation, a Bluetooth cellular phone interface, a six-disc CD changer and DVD with 5.1 digital surround decoding. All of the vehicle’s alarms and warning buzzers go through it, so there is really no practical way, or reason, why you’d get rid of it. So for that particular install we really concentrated on going from the head unit backwards, and ended up building a 3800W system from it.
NZV8: So you’re saying that if your car has a modern OEM head unit that’s integrated into the dashboard, you can still build a serious system from it?
JM: Yeah, in most cases factory head units can be integrated into a really nice aftermarket audio system. And better still, normally it doesn’t require much work. As an example, I just upgraded the OEM system in a new Ford Falcon while I’ve been here in New Zealand by adding a woofer and amplifier. I basically just tapped into the rear speaker leads, and the Kicker amplifier I used has a speaker level input, so I ran the wires from the rear speaker cables into the amp and then set the woofer box into the car, attached it to the amp and powered it all up. That sort of install only takes two or three hours, and it had a dramatic effect on the sound quality.
NZV8: With OEM audio systems improving in quality all the time, where is Kicker heading with its product range?
JM: You know, it’s hard to say. Video ” which we’ve been asked to get into ” isn’t an area that Kicker wants to get involved with. We feel there is enough of it coming as OEM fitment from manufacturers these days, so there’s really not a lot of point for us to try and break into that market. Also, we’d rather concentrate on the areas we do well. Kicker product has taken out every major sound quality (SQ) award, and every major sound pressure level (SPL) award there is. Of course, the records always bounce backwards and forwards, but we’ve always been right up there.
NZV8: Is there one part of a car audio system that is more important than others?
JM: Speakers are probably the most important overall but not always. Basically, a speaker is a translator, it takes an electrical energy and converts it into acoustic energy, or sound. If they don’t do a good job, it doesn’t matter how good the amplifier driving them is, or how good the head unit is, they’re going to sound pretty awful. On the other hand, you can take a cheap head unit with a built-in amplifier, hook it up to a decent set of speakers and it’s going to sound okay. So speakers are the most important, but they don’t always make the most difference.
NZV8: If people just want a basic but good-sounding system in their cars, what do you recommend?
JM: Ideally, if you take your average car off the street, the first thing I would do is put in an amplifier and subwoofer. So now you’ve got something you never had: bass. You can spend a lot of money upgrading the speakers and head unit and maybe only get a five to 10 per cent improvement in sound. But by adding a subwoofer and amplifier you’re getting what I like to call bang for buck.
From there you go back and upgrade the speakers. Most OEM systems normally run dual cone speakers, which have a big and a small paper cone and aren’t very good. You can upgrade these with two-way coaxial speakers that have a tweeter instead of a smaller paper cone, or a component set which has a separate midrange speaker and separate tweeter. So a three-way system like this [subwoofer, midrange, tweeter] is the most common. You have a subwoofer that is actively ‘crossed over’, meaning that the amplifier is only sending bass to it. Then you send a midrange, or upper midrange signal to your coaxial or components, which when passively split will send high notes to the tweeters and the mid notes to the midrange speaker. That’s the most efficient way to get good sound.
NZV8: When it comes to car audio, is it a case of less is more?
JM: When I was growing up, my first car had 20 speakers in it. I took 12 of them out and re-did the whole system and it sounded so much better. It was so much more natural sounding and clear, because I wasn’t being bombarded with sound from everywhere.
When it comes to bass, these days we’ve got a woofer that weighs 45kg. It’s an 18-inch woofer, which just set the world record with two of them pulling 176dB. So yes, sometimes it’s better to have fewer speakers.
NZV8: In regard to custom car audio installations, is the scene still alive and kicking in the States?
JM: It’s still very popular. These days the status quo is to have a stereo that costs more than the car did. I mean, it’s not uncommon to go into a shop like Joe Labon’s Ultimate Audio ” one of our premier dealers down in Orlando, Florida ” and see some huge systems being built. He just had a guy come in recently and spend US$50,000 [about NZ$85,125] on the stereo system alone. With the wheels and tyres and all of the other custom work they did on the vehicle, the total bill came to about US$90,000 [NZ$153,300] ” and that’s just some guy off the street!
Your typical tuner [import] car owner would spend on average about US$2000 to $10,000 [NZ$3400 to $17,000] on audio gear.
NZV8: You have been to Beach Hop the last two years. What are your thoughts on it and the New Zealand scene?
JM: I’m blown away. Comparing per capita, you guys have a higher percentage of unbelievable cars here. Not just at shows, either, but out on the street too. The USA is losing its excitement and dedication at the moment; it makes me want to move here.
NZV8: We take it you’ve got a few cool cars yourself.
JM: I’ve got a few. A ’96 Camaro Z28 with a full rebuild. A ’92 S10 truck with the full works, a ’99 Suburban family vehicle, but of course it has a full Kicker system in it. My wife drives an ’01 Ford Sporttrack. There’s an ’80 Oldsmobile Cutlass with a 455 Pontiac motor, fully customised. A ’59 Catalina. Thanks to last year’s Beach Hop, I’m now excited about working on it again.
NZV8: How’s business these days what with the economy and so on?
JM: It’s looking dimmer, but the light is on at the end of the tunnel. Due to new car stuff, we still provide a step above the rest, but are looking at branching out into home audio. At times like this you need to be more creative.
NZV8: We’ve seen you with Chip Foose on Overhaulin’. How was that experience?
JM: You work with the best people in the world at what they do. It’s incredible, you learn so much from them. I’ve been on it eight times now and still love it. Chip is now a Kicker spokesperson too. He’s a great guy to deal with.
NZV8: How does the New Zealand car audio scene compare?
JM: It’s getting better, not that it was bad. People are starting to recognise a customised car needs a customised system, it’s part of the package. The guys at Kicker in New Zealand are doing a great job spreading the word. I’ve been here three times now and always enjoy coming back.
NZV8: Thanks for your time, John. We look forward to seeing you next time you’re here.
Words: Todd Wylie Photos: NZV8 Archive